Consumed By Appetite

The never-ending mania of feeding a body.

Image: Shelly Munkberg

The worst it ever got for me was the spring of 2009. At the time, I was living in an unfurnished apartment in downtown Saigon and basically erasing myself from existence. For weeks, I never went out but to scuttle downstairs for cigarettes and whiskey, never spoke, and made as little impression on the world as is humanly possible.

In the four or five months I’d been living in Vietnam I’d lost more than 40 pounds, entirely changing my metabolism in the process. Without any insulation I was all wires, nervy, more anxious even than normal, junk-yard-dog-feisty. In truth, I had been eating, with some regularity, and widely throughout the country’s great cuisines. But my flight from Los Angeles, from home, from the known, from work and life and friends and family had something of a vision quest about it, or so I flattered myself to think, and so I drew out my fasts between meals, withdrawing, awaiting revelation or renewal. Consequently I smoked, to bury my appetite and, to borrow from Shantaram, because like everyone else in the world who smokes, I wanted to die as much as I wanted to live. To be reborn, I guess. I binged on coffee and drank like a punk, whittling myself down to the bone — trying, I suppose, to shuck myself form the husk of who I’d become to create someone new, someone else.

But now I was craving the foods I’d missed — bread, olive oil, tomatoes. Tearing myself away from my picture-window view of an open sewer, I made little sorties to the market to buy spaghetti, the makings for red sauce, wine. I bought breads and patés and deli ham. I bought cheese and thick, fatty meat to cook to smithereens in a braise. And I ate. Not everything at once, but close to it. And then I regretted it. After the feasts, I drank pint after pint of brackish water to cleanse myself. I was a psychological bellows, swelling and squeezing. Rinse, repeat. If this had indeed been a vision quest, my Lakota name would have been Sitting Bulimic — and I failed miserably.

The oddity of this neurotic meltdown happening five thousand miles from home, far from the mass media we love to blame for our body ideals, was not lost on me then, nor is it now. For all the diagnosable disorders I was touched with at the time, now I have Instagram and body issues brought to me in real time on 4G. Now I am a bachelor in New York with extreme Omnivore’s Dilemma.

In life and in the kitchen, I am entirely lacking in balance. Self-control is a fantasy. Concepts of maturity, like portion-control, and planning-ahead, are abstractions gone poof while I eat pizza in bed in my bathrobe, night after night. Then in the morning I am delivered a scroll of perfectly grooved and tanned underwear models to compare myself with. Fitspo, or fml, these are the bodies we aspire to, the impossible abs with which we grade our own. I mean, I don’t want to look like Marlon Teixeira or anything. I want to look better, obviously.

In the last few years, I’ve been to see a gang of nutritionists, have sought the advice of specialists of every stripe — including that of my late spiritual guru, Jim Harrison, whose mock motto, “Eat or die,” was pretty much the end-all of advice. But still I struggled. What to eat, when, how much? How not to eat? To juice, or not to juice. To cleanse, or not to cleanse. Four days using a calorie-counting app made me suicidal. The more I thought about it all, the more nuts I got.

One of the greatest of Warhol’s many witticisms was his claim to have been “deeply superficial” — a seeming contradiction which is as apt as any description for our era of extreme polarization in belief, and behavior. These days we know no moderation — all or nothing, go hard or go home — and our interest in superficiality is unfathomably deep. In a governing body, this sort of deferral to appearances, lacking proper checks and balances, can result in authoritarianism. In the body politic, we might flit about between entertainments, distended unto distraction. In the corporeal, I’ve begun to think of vanity the way I would a sweet tooth: the mind, like the body, doesn’t always, or even all that often, seem to crave that which is good for it, what is most nourishing, fulfilling. I consume all the worst shit with grotesque, Henry VIII-style gluttony.

But beyond the handy metaphorical link between our modes of consumption — be it our “media diet,” our various “digital detoxes,” or “having the stomach” for this or that horrific news — what, if any, correlation exists between our behavior at table, and in life? Does my bingeing on a Netflix show, for instance, correspond to the way I consume Seamless sushi while… bingeing said Netflix show? Does the mania of our righteous protesting (and resulting social media fugue state) make me a manic-depressive eater? My purges at least — of closets, and colons — seem to coincide. (Before that trip to Vietnam, I gave away every book and kitchen tool I owned.)

If the behaviors are related, can best practices in one arena affect than in the other? If I maintain a calm and orderly lifestyle (regular sleep, moderation in social media intake, moral outrage in doses), will I behave with any more conscientiousness in the kitchen? Or vice versa?

In thinking about all of this — how we ought to live, how we ought to eat — this one deceptively profound little line from one of those flouncy movies John Cusack made in the ’80s, The Sure Thing, keeps coming back to me. The movie has something to do with him trying to get laid… I don’t really remember. What I do remember vividly is his professor telling her class of horny, exhausted college students simply to eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired. That’s all. Even when I was a kid this seemed like a glimmering pearl of wisdom — an earlier version of Christopher Guest’s great line from Best in Show, “If you’re tired, pull over. If you’re hungry, eat something.”

It’s not like I was raised by wolves, but still such simple permission to do as (and only as) the body requires, was liberating to me back then, and is so again now (shout out to Epicurus). It’s not a cure-all, sure, but neither is it a trend, a fad, a diet. It’s a mantra that, even when I fuck up or botch it, I can still aim for the next time around. It is a prescription and a promissory note. It’s a way forward. Which is helpful because eating is, well, everything. Eating is autobiography in the making. You may not be literally what you eat, but you’re certainly the composite of your intake and the body’s responses to it. In what other arena of life are we made to wear our misdeeds as a fat suit — an actual fat suit made from actual fat?

But if food is an intolerant and inflexible god, she is also capable of such lyricism and excitement. Food is so obviously the seat of enjoyment and nourishment in our lives — literally and otherwise — that to remove it, or life-hack it out with Soylent, is a kind of spiritual and social castration. Food electrifies us, the vessel for the most transporting sensual experiences outside of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Food is life, bruh. Which makes the outright renunciation of food, Anorexia, look like the death wish it is. Bulimia is having your cake and then not having it too.

Basically, I try to think of my habits as though I were in a fairy tale. Eat too much of any one thing and I risk growing dependent, making the house of proteins too powerful in my culinary chart, so to speak. So I balance with variety, spreading my custom among all the glorious plants and beasties. Decadence and severity, though, are always there, tractor beams I always feel the pull from.

So once again, I find myself in an eating crisis. My love affair with food has gone all Dick-and-Liz, and I, for one, am afraid of the Virginia Woolf at the door. I don’t know what to eat, and therefore don’t know who I am. Food has become my enemy, and eating — deciding what to eat, when, where — a trial. But eating is the only thing I do every day. So the problem lingers, demands constant attention. Much as I’d like to renounce it entirely, I just keep coming back for more. Eat or die. So it goes. What’s for dinner?